The United States on Wednesday voiced deep concern over a controversial Russian bill that would force foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in political activity to declare themselves "foreign agents."
"The United States is deeply concerned by the Russian Duma's consideration of legislation that would potentially limit the activities of Russian non-governmental organizations receiving foreign financing. The legislation would require NGOs engaged in civil society activities broadly defined as political to register as foreign agents," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said at a regular press briefing.
Ventrell said Washington had already communicated its concerns over the issue to relevant Russian authorities and noted that the Russian Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights has expressed its own concerns with the draft law.
"We believe that people everywhere should enjoy the same fundamental freedoms and universal human rights. The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to be heard and have a voice in government. That's why we've raised our concerns about the potential passage of this new NGO legislation," he added.
Ventrell said the proposed Russian law requires all foreign-funded NGOs, including those engaged in a raft of non-partisan activities to promote democracy and good governance, to register as foreign agents. In comparison, the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act requires only foreign-funded groups acting as the agents of foreign governments in a political capacity to disclose their activities and finances.
Last week, Russia's Lower House of Parliament, the Duma, had given its initial approval to a new set of controversial rules on internationally-funded Russian NGOs, triggering concerns that the measure could be used by the Kremlin to suppress dissent and silence critics.
The bill was given the initial approval by the Duma last Friday in the first of three required readings. In order to become law, the measure is still required to clear two more readings in the Duma and secure the approval of the Upper House (Federation Council) before being ratified by President Vladimir Putin.
The bill, which was tabled in the 450-member Duma by the ruling United Russia party, requires Russian NGOs receiving foreign funding and engage in political activities to resister as a "foreign agent" and submit to more rigorous checks by the authorities.
If the bill becomes law, the foreign-funded NGOs will have to identify themselves under the "foreign agent" tag in all public statements and materials. They would be required to undergo financial audits and submit reports on their activities twice every year.
The NGOs that fail to summit complete reports on their activities face fines of up to 1 million rubles ($30,240). Violations of the proposed measures would be punishable by prison terms of up to four years. Also, NGOs that fail to re-register as foreign agents within 90 days of the law's implementation would be shut down for six months.
Russian authorities say that the proposed set of laws on NGOs are aimed at preventing foreign nations from influencing the country's internal politics. Incidentally, foreign-funded NGOs and western nations, particularly the United States, were blamed for inciting the widespread protests that followed Putin's re-election in May.
The Opposition claimed then that the polls were marred by irregularities. Further, Golos, Russia's only monitoring group funded mainly by the U.S. and the EU, confirmed that it had received nearly 5,300 complaints alleging violations of electoral laws. Nevertheless, the post-poll protests were suppressed by Russian authorities, with hundreds of demonstrators arrested.
by RTT Staff Writer
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